The simple and sheer amazingness

Phil Plait has a fantastic observation on all this, prompted by the amazing photo from the Mars orbiter of the Rover on its way down – this one –

The simple and sheer amazingness of this picture cannot be overstated. Here we have a picture taken by a camera on board a space probe that’s been orbiting Mars for six years, reset and re-aimed by programmers hundreds of millions of kilometers away using math and science pioneered centuries ago, so that it could catch the fleeting view of another machine we humans flung across space, traveling hundreds of million of kilometers to another world at mind-bending speeds, only to gently – and perfectly – touch down on the surface mere minutes later.

I know. I was tripping on it yesterday, and I still am. Wham bam 8 months at high speed then wham decelerate then whisper touch down gently on the ground. It makes my eyes prickle every time I think about it. And not only that but the orbiter snaps a photo of it from above. It’s just too amazing.

The news these days is filled with polarization, with hate, with fear, with ignorance. But while these feelings are a part of us, and always will be, they neither dominate nor define us. Not if we don’t let them. When we reach, when we explore, when we’re curious – that’s when we’re at our best. We can learn about the world around us, the Universe around us. It doesn’t divide us, or separate us, or create artificial and wholly made-up barriers between us. As we saw on Twitter, at New York Times Square where hundreds of people watched the landing live, and all over the world: science and exploration bind us together. Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people.

It’s what we can do, and what we must do.

Ya. One of the guys at the late press conference last night said he really believes curiosity is the central human quality. It was thrilling, especially because that’s what I think too.

Thank you JPL. Thank you engineers.


  1. says

    “It makes my eyes prickle” – me too and my throat even clenches a little. I was a happy wreck last night watching and this morning telling everybody at work who had not seen it.

  2. sailor1031 says

    “Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people.”

    Well, some of us anyway. But mostly – not! See today’s news……

  3. fly44d says

    I’ve done spacecraft operations for 30+ years and still, when something like this gets pulled off as perfectly as MSL landing, I am awestruck by the design, testing, planning and execution that I know had to go into this.

    Even better is the appreciation for what has been pulled off by those who may not have my point of view. The understanding of what a team of people, focused on a goal without power, self interests, politics and religion, can do. I’ve seen a lot of this today (Phil and Ophelia only being two but very eloquent) and it is pleasing and inspiring. Inspiring to make many more goals the world would really want to pay attention to.

  4. says

    Thanks, Gregory.

    I have to disagree with Plait that science makes us “better people.” Science is a tool that can be used for both good and evil. This is the most scientifically sophisticated era in human history, and it’s still choc-a-bloc with every imaginable brand of human evildoing.

  5. fly44d says

    Science without power and politics makes us better people. When we do science out of curiosity, it makes us better people. It is when power is at stake that evildoing is committed. Always.

  6. says

    Science is a tool that can be used for both good and evil.

    Clearly, nukes and biothreats and even airplanes into buildings demonstrate the bad, but what I think is both in net-net and over long-term science still makes us better, esp. in comparison to whatever is in second place (sports, art, economics, politics, religion,????). What science has done over thousands of years is show, even to the non-scientist, that there are naturalistic explanations for phenomenon that formerly were the acts of spirits, gods, and goblins. Even the religious types have a hard time denying the realities that science has exposed.

    So it means, collectively, in fits and jerks, we’re growing up, moving away from primitive superstition and slowly recognizing there is a method to learn truth. Even if science is getting suppressed in some countries (and now frighteningly the U.S. as well) it still finds ways to advance. I will just be sad that China will have to pick up our fallen banner when the anti-science crowd in U.S. prevails politically.

  7. callistacat says

    “Science without power and politics makes us better people. When we do science out of curiosity, it makes us better people.”

    I agree. 🙂

  8. Shatterface says

    The Rover’s called ‘Curiosity’.

    We send a robot millions of miles across space – and we just call it ‘Curiosity’.

    Genius: the ambition and humilty of science in the face of the universe condensed into one small word.

  9. says

    A dear friend of mine is one of the targeting specialists who set that shot up. We were geeking out about it on Friday and apparently the whole HiRISE team stayed up late and went in to work on Sunday to participate.

  10. says


    Science without power and politics makes us better people.

    Wrong. Politics is not inherently bad; it is how we organize ourselves to get things done. Politics includes the labor movement, feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, etc. etc.

    I am pro-science but I really balk at seeing it deified, if you will, as The Answer To All Our Problems™. If you want to make a better world, you need to be coming from the right place, ethically/morally. If you aren’t, all the tools in the world won’t help.

  11. Michael says


    Scientists and engineers spend so much time working with the Mars rovers that the robots become almost like pets. And just like pets, the rovers get names that often say a lot about their “personalities.” Curiosity got its name from student Clara Ma, who as a sixth grader, entered an essay contest to name the next Mars rover. Her essay was chosen from 9,000 entries and as part of her winnings, Ma signed her name on the rover before it was packed for its journey to Mars.

  12. fly44d says

    Ms. Daisy Cutter, I didn’t mean to imply politics is inherently bad and yes, it is how our societies get things done. It is that when science and politics mix, there is a chance that the science gets abused in a way that doesn’t make us better. Also, talking about the politics of power and control as opposed to the politics of consensus and building. So the statement is simple, science without politics makes us better.

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